Are peas the new constant in the ever-changing world of animal feed? Hear the latest from industry experts.

By Dario Bard

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The world of animal feed has traditionally been dominated by two ingredients: corn (as the primary source of starch for energy) and soybeans (as the main source of protein). But as corn and soy prices have risen, peas have become an increasingly popular alternative.

“What makes peas attractive as feed,” explains Rex Newkirk, Director of Research and Business Development at the Canadian International Grains Institute, “is their mix of starch and protein. When corn and soybean prices are high, like today, peas can be used to offset parts of both of those ingredients. Other products, on the other hand, allow you to offset only one of the two.”

In Europe, peas have traditionally been used as a major ingredient in hog feed. The nutrient profile of peas matches the nutritional requirements of pigs, which, in addition, have a digestive system that is particularly adept at deriving energy from peas. In North America, however, this is a relatively new development.

“I used to work for a hog company,” says Denis Tremorin, Sustainability Director for Pulse Canada. “I was there for four years and we weren’t using many peas. In the two years before I left in 2010, they were using more peas because as the price of soy meal, corn and wheat was up, the price differential made sense.”

In addition to the hog industry, peas are being used to a more limited extent to feed other livestock, including chickens, cattle and sheep, and are even being used by the aquaculture industry to feed several types of fish, such as catfish and tilapia.

“Fifteen years ago, there wasn’t much awareness of peas in Canada,” says Newkirk. “Pulse Canada and the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers and organizations like that did a lot of work to show the industry the benefits of peas. Then farmers started using them and found they make nice pellets, have good nutritional properties and the animals like eating them, and so it became sort of a staple, a go-to depending on price.”

“Peas are unique in that they can produce energy and protein in a temperate climate,” says Dr. Vern Anderson of the Carrington Research Extension Center in North Dakota. He notes that peas can be grown to the edge of the Arctic Circle and are an unparalleled feed crop in lands above 50˚ north latitude.

“Where corn and soybeans can’t be grown, peas takeover as the legume of choice. Peas are being grown as a protein source for dairy cattle in the middle of Alaska, for instance, where it would cost US$ 1200 per ton to import protein oil-seed meals from the continental U.S.”

It is no wonder then that Canada is a top pea producing nation.

“Since the 1990s, the pea industry has grown quite a bit,” says Tremorin. “We used to grow only about 500,000 MT of peas a year and now we are growing about 3 million.” Tremorin estimates that on average 300,000 MT of Canada’s pea production goes to animal feed each year.

“Canadians probably have the strongest feed pea market because peas there are used in swine and poultry rations where the nutrient density and value can be captured,” observes Anderson. “In the U.S. and other parts of the world, there’s competition with many other grains and processing by-products like wheat middlings and distillers grains.”

“The amount of peas that go into the feed market varies quite a bit,” says Tremorin. “If the quality of a harvest is low, then what was originally intended for human consumption ends up as feed.”

Human Consumption and Feed Markets

Soon after the North American feed industry discovered the value of peas as a feed ingredient, a marked increase in human demand caused pea prices to spike.

“There used to be no human consumption pressure on pea stock and now there’s a lot,” says Tremorin, “and so there is less leftover for feed. As with everything else, when the price is right, the domestic feed market is going to buy peas, but now they are competing with international buyers that are using it for human consumption, and the human consumption market tends to outbid the feed markets.”

“Over the last five years or more, our focus as an industry in terms of developing feed markets internationally has fallen off a bit because edible prices have been very strong and quality has been relatively good, so not much has been going into feed internationally,” explains Greg Cherewyk, Pulse Canada’s Executive Director. “We used to export quite a bit of feed peas to Spain, but we don’t as much anymore, and that was one of our biggest export markets for that product.”

Canadian peas are now being exported for human consumption to places like India, China and Bangladesh. Other big pea producing nations, such as Russia and Ukraine, are also exporting peas to India, but Tremorin says it is likely they are exporting peas into European feed markets, as well. Europe has a tradition of using peas for feed; they produce their own, but they also import feed peas from other nations. Within Europe, France is the big producer, shipping its peas throughout the continent, especially to Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain, as well as the Indian subcontinent.

“In the Scandinavian countries peas are used primarily as forage,” says Anderson. “In Sweden, Norway and Finland, peas are grown together with oats and barley and then harvested as forage for ruminant dairy animals, mostly.”

Kazakhstan is an emerging pea producer. “They need to grow more peas to provide protein and energy to their growing livestock industry,” says Anderson.

In North America, efforts are underway to incorporate peas and other pulses into people’s diets in order to provide the population healthy amounts of energy and protein.

“Some food processors are starting to fractionate peas into starch, protein and fiber,” notes Anderson, “and that adds even more value as they develop strong markets for those components.”

“We are going to see North America’s appetite for pulses increase as new pulse products go mainstream,” predicts Newkirk.

“Peas are a popular feed ingredient in Canada because we have a lot of production and there is availability at source, and I think that is what is peaking interest in the last couple of years here,” says Tremorin. “The feed industry has realized there are opportunities here because the market is big. We’ve been growing 3 million tonnes of peas for a number of years now. So there is room for it to fit back into rations, but it’s always going to be a numbers game with the other crops in terms of prices.”

“The feed industry is unique in that it’s very opportunistic. It is able to use whatever ingredients are thrown at it,” says Newkirk. “There are many high-quality feed ingredients and what gets used in animal rations depends on price and availability. Things can be switched quite readily, so if corn prices are high, feed wheat becomes an option. And if peas are at a good price, they’ll switch to peas. There is a lot of flexibility when it comes to animal feed ingredients and that’s an important part of the grain trade as a whole; you have this ability to absorb materials.”

With prices rising to the level of corn and soybeans, do the numbers spell game over for feed peas?

“The food and feed industries don’t really compete against each other; they complement each other,” explains Newkirk. “When there is a lot of production, say in India, and they don’t need as many, then the livestock industry becomes a really good outlet for those peas. And what happens is the price drops a little bit, the feed industry knows it’s a good product, and when the price is right viz a viz soybeans and corn, they jump on it. It varies from year to year quite a bit, but the two markets do work well together.”

In effect, the animal feed side lessens risk for pea producers and traders.

New Frontiers: Specialty Beef

In the U.S., like in Canada, human-use pressure has pushed the price of peas up, limiting their use in animal feed. But the use of peas for feed has developed a loyal following.

“There are some producers willing to pay the price for peas whatever they might be, as long as they are not exorbitantly expensive,” says Anderson. “People that have tried peas in their animal rations find that the animals love them and seek out rations that have peas in them once they get the taste of them, so there’s an attraction there.”

“Feed ingredients are species dependent,” notes Newkirk. Peas are the preferred feed for hogs, but they haven’t been regarded as particularly beneficial to ruminants. That is, until researchers turned out some interesting results.

A decade ago, the Carrington Research Extension Center was approached by a cattleman who claimed the beef derived from his cattle was juicer and tenderer because he fed his animals peas; he encouraged researchers to look into it. Studies at North Dakota State University and later the University of Nebraska-Lincoln bore this out.

“In my 34 years of research, we never found anything that we fed that made any significant difference to beef until we started working with peas,” says Anderson. “There is some pretty solid evidence that peas make the meat juicer and tenderer in animals that are not genetically pre-disposed to be as good as they can be.”

Producers of purebred bulls used for breeding report that including peas at 10% to 15% in animal feed improves the muscle development of their animals.

This has led to the development of a specialty market for pea-fed beef. Anderson says the number of cattle ranchers involved is small, but they have established a loyal customer base and successfully created a niche market.

“There is this almost cult-like following that demands and seeks out pea-fed beef in the Northern Plains region. This has attracted the attention of folks in Virginia, Iowa, Wyoming and other parts. There is interest from people calling to inquire about starting their own pea-fed beef enterprise as a market differentiator.”

Does this mean peas are becoming an established animal feed ingredient? A new constant in the ever-changing world of animal feed? With the volatile price fluctuations of grains and other feed ingredients, it is difficult to be sure. But, to hear Anderson tell it, one thing is certain: “Peas make for great feed and animals love them.”